When Gary Neville was announced as a TV pundit, it is safe to say neutrals and non Manchester United fans everywhere were anticipating a barrage of unintelligible biased nonsense coming from his mouth.
So imagine the shock when Neville not only said something perceptive, but brilliantly perceptive. In fact, Neville’s candid honesty and accuracy with his description of England’s problems have been a breath of fresh air. Usually footballers speak with the intellect of a baby dropped on its head at birth and say pointless, predictable meaningless things which make you wonder why someone like Tim Vickery or Jonathan Wilson aren’t utilised as pundits.
Neville though, has dared to voice real opinions, rather than comforming to dull stereotypical statements in criticising England. In admitting that England never had the players to win a major tournament, he joined Paul Scholes in revealing the problems England endure. Scholes points out that English players are selfish and more concerned about individual glory than the team. One need not imagine too hard who he is talking about (cough, Steven Gerrard). Team players in an England shirt have been few and far between, and generally limited to a handful of players in recent times.
Neville though, points out that England just don’t have the technical ability to compete with the world’s, or even Europe’s, best. This is a crucial landmark, as now we have someone working as a pundit in England who is realistic about the national team. For too long now England has laboured under the illusion that it can realistically challenge for major honours. In truth, they have a chance when major tournaments roll around, but they are relying on about half a dozen teams all having spectacularly poor tournaments. The 2002 World Cup was a case in point. In this competition, a series of surprising exits for major nations left England, Germany and Brazil as the three most likely winners of the tournament at the quarter final stage. With England’s 5-1 win over Germany fresh in the memory, a victory over Brazil would have made us favourites for the trophy. Yet despite so many screw ups from teams better than us like Argentina, Spain and France, there was still one team better than us left in the competition – Brazil – and they duly beat us.
This has been England’s problem ever since 1966. And in 1966, we were fortunate that Brazil were knocked out early due to extremely lax refereeing which allowed their rivals to kick lumps out of their players without punishment.
England’s lack of technical ability, teamwork and tactical know how has always been a problema. Some suspect Sir Alex Ferguson convinces his Manchester United players to quit international team duty early; perhaps this is true. But equally plausible is the notion that many of his disciples come away from England duty realising just how far we are from having a realistic chance of winning silverware.
But realism is necessary. Getting to the quarter finals of the World Cup twice in a row under Sven Goran Eriksson was par for the course, and a good achievement for a nation of our ability. England though, were angry that they could not progress further under the Swede, unjustifiably given the team’s relative lack of ability. A quarter final place is realistic for England in the World Cup, a semi final place ambitious but achievable, and getting to the final is something we can only dream of at this moment.
Neville’s candid honesty is welcome, and more is needed. It’s time to shake off the nonsense that we are treated to in the media, and recognise our place in the football pyramid. We are not in the same category as the likes of France, Portugal or Uruguay at this moment, let alone Spain or Holland. This may change in time, but for now, it’s what we have to get used to.
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